Hala Asamarai won the Columbia Heights school board seat Tuesday that's been vacant and in the public eye since a board member allegedly posted an anti-Muslim comment on social media in the fall.

Asamarai, 38, who has her doctorate in education, faced off against Tim Utz, 58, a perpetual campaigner for state and local elections. She beat Utz by nearly 150 votes, garnering 740 to his nearly 600.

She fills the seat of Grant Nichols, who resigned after a contentious start to the school year; her election restores the Columbia Heights school board to six members. Nichols stepped down in October, dogged by a Facebook comment attributed to him on social media that was critical of Muslims' alleged bathroom habits. He denied posting the comment.

Before Tuesday, reports from the candidates and their supporters indicated that voters were split.

Some in the Muslim community weren't supporting Asamarai even though she is Muslim because of an unrelated issue involving a mosque in Eden Prairie, where Asamarai's father and husband are board members, Asamarai said last week. Instead, this contingent threw its support to Utz, who had backed Nichols' efforts to keep his school board seat.

Many Utz supporters reached Friday said they were exercising their right to choose a candidate regardless of ethnicity or religion. Utz listened well to concerns from the Muslim community, said Columbia Heights resident Osman Ahmed.

The Columbia Heights district has changed demographically since CAIR-Minnesota executive director Jaylani Hussein attended school there. He said when he graduated from Columbia Heights High School in 2000, he was one of a small group of minority students.

The population of minority students has been steadily increasing over the past few years in the district, and has risen from about 50 percent minority students in the 2005-06 school year to about 75 percent this school year, according to Minnesota Department of Education enrollment data.

The small district of 3,200 also serves south Fridley and Hilltop.

Diverse populations are attracted to the city because of the community's openness and its affordable homes, said Columbia Heights Mayor Gary Peterson.

Hussein had predicted that many would support Asamarai's bid for office. As divisive as recent events have been, he said the district is a "united community," which isn't found in many places around the nation today, especially as it pertains to Muslims.

"I'm really honored to say that I'm a proud Hylander," Hussein said, referring to the school's mascot.

It was the second special school board election this year for the Columbia Heights district. In the Jan. 26 election, board member Naty Severson beat Asamarai by 70 votes, filling former board member Lori Meyer's vacant seat. Overall, voter turnout in this race was two times that of the Jan. 26 special election.

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569